Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

THE ELITE SWINGSTERS - THE BEAT OF AFRICA

I love the sleeve for this record. It is so simple and yet so evocative.
The instruments tells you that the music is jazz - three saxophones no less!
The little cut-outs tell you that the music comes from the continent of Africa.
And of course the small writing on the bottom tells you who is making it.

What is missing? A picture of the band perhaps? But as this record was released in 1958 in South Africa it would have been difficult, to say the least, to have had record with black faces on it. Far easier to have a cartoon of the instruments. After all the record buying public would know that band was black.

The sleeve notes are worth quoting in full:
"The Elite Swingsters represent something of a phenomena in the field of African music. Following on their first release — Inch Mama/Amadoda Etshwaleni RCA 148 which record was in the best-seller class — came their sensational RCA 160 Phalafala/Phulaphula which surpasses all existing sales figures for a record of this type.
Apart from being the top-selling group amongst their own folk, the Elites' version of Phalafala has been in demand as a dance number at leading record dealers throughout the country, and this number has recently been taken up by a firm of publishers who have great hopes for it in the international market.
The infectious beat imparted by the Elite Swingsters to all their numbers ensures for this record, a permanent place, not only in the popular field of dance music, but also for the serious collector of Africana."

 "Apart from being the top-selling group amongst their own folk" tells you who this record was aimed at - people who were 'different folk' to the musicians.

Having said that I am glad that this record was put together - or else I would have to try and track down some very hard to find 78s.

The Elite Swingsters are perhaps best know for the work they did in the early 60s with the 'African songbird' Dolly Rathebe. However, they had existed since the mid 50s and were already well known and successful in their own right as a jazz instrumental band.
In some ways this record is at a cross roads for jazz in South Africa. Still firmly in the tradition of big bands playing for dancers The Beat of Africa looks back to the interwar tradition of bands such as the Jazz Maniacs and the Merry Blackbirds. Nowhere can you hear the influence of the jazz that was being played in America in the late 1950s. Indeed its is almost as if bop had never happened.
However, this kind of African jazz would continue to have an influence in South Africa as can be heard on some of Dollar Brands recordings for As-Shams,The Sun, most notably Mannenberg and by other As-Shams records such as Lionel Pillay's Plum (you can read about it here).

I have been trying to think of the best way to disrcibe the amazing music on this record. Perhaps the best way is to let people who are better equipped for the task do it.

"African jazz, when we started, we emulated the Americans, the big bands, but we played African jazz because we took the chord progressions from marabi ... We categorise it as African jazz because when you say jazz, you tend to think of American jazz - and we were using that style as a big band ... Where the saxophone section plays a phrase and the brass section answers, that type of arrangement the Count Basies and so forth were using. But the melody - you can see, feel, it's African .. You can do whatever you like, put in American phrases, but you'll come back to that marabi trend. Its a cultural thing; it won;t die." Ntemi Piliso

"Very broadly speaking, African rhythmic patterns are organised in cycles the succession of which combines repetition and variations in melody and accents. In Xhosa choral music, as in many other South Africa musics, these repetitions and variations are accommodated within a structure of calls and responses which overlap and include pauses that do not coincide, creating an extremely dynamic effect some musicologists have termed 'staggering cycles'... In South African urban popular music, cycles and overlappings have been retained, western chords have replaced traditional scales, and one or several instruments (drums, guitar, keyboards etc.) strongly emphasis the beat." Denis-Constant Martin

"South African music ... tends towards rhythmic complexity of singing voices over a regular beat; its polyrhythms come from the voices, which vary their accentuation relative to the basis rhythm. This is remarkably like jazz, especially in the 1930s and 1940s music of Count Basie and others, who riffed and soloed against a rock-solid four-four beat" John Storm Roberts

Listen to these great tracks here

Apart from Phalafala and Phulaphula I would like to draw your attention to Touch-Touch (surely patta-patta?), the very fine trumpet playing on Dis Swaar Cherry, the great tenor sax on Isikahlo Sika Chooks and I love the sung refrain on Amadoda Etscwaleni.

More about the Elite Swingers at  flatinternational

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